Lily Casson has been researching the life of her great-grandparents, Sylvia and David Maxwell Fyfe with her family for the last decade. Here, she uncovers clues surrounding the mystery of her great grandfather’s chosen title, Viscount Kilmuir.
“I had thought of calling myself Creich from the little place in Sutherland with the ruined chapel, the graveyard of which contains the bones of my forebears. Sylvia said that she was not going to spend her declining years spelling her name to butcher’s assistants, so I called myself Kilmuir of Creich –the ‘of Creich’ not being part of the title.”A Political Adventure – The Memoirs of the Earl of Kilmuir, Chapter 13
Of the places that are associated with the life of my great grandfather, the Highlands is shrouded in mystery, like the mist that circles the peaks. The reason why he chose the name Kilmuir when he became an Earl is not known among the family. It was obviously a deeply personal choice, not related to any place he was living at the time – in London or Sussex – or had lived, as far as we knew, so setting off on a Scottish road trip in the autumn of 2012, it felt like we were on a detective hunt for clues that might lead us to discover more.
What did we have to go on? We knew that his mother, Isobel, had been born and brought up in Dornoch, in Sutherland, north of the Highlands. David was her only child, born when she was forty, and she clearly instilled in her son the memories of her childhood world, when they visited regularly for summer holidays.
“To me, the old tales were very close.”
he writes in his autobiography. What’s more, this wild country of lochs, set against the heather and the hills enchanted him.
“To the imagination of my boyhood the countryside … had a magic of its own.”
In an introduction he was invited to write for a book written by a fellow Scotsman, George Sutherland-Levenson-Gower, 5th Duke of Sutherland, in 1957, he tells the story of
“A friend of mine, who … once told me that as a child she had always felt that crossing the Dornoch Firth was passing out of the Highlands into a strange country… I had an uneasy feeling that I knew what she meant. The very name Sutherland, the “southern land” looks north to the Viking settlements of Orkney and Shetland.”Preface to Looking Back : The Autobiography of the Duke of Sutherland
Visiting places that he had known well, and getting to know them, gradually combined his memories with memories we created. We went to Dornoch, where Maxwell Fyfe was made a freeman in 1962, locating the house of his grandmother, which is now a B & B, and exploring its 13th century cathedral ‘built by the last Scot enrolled in the Calendar of Scottish Saints’ and dedicated to St Mary, before warming ourselves by a roaring fire in Dornoch Castle which it faces across the square.
We came across Dornoch Jail, now an up-market shop selling beautiful jumpers and jewellery, and discovered a book telling the story of the late Clearances, where crofters were evicted off the land, in favour of more profitable sheep farming.
In one of the ‘cells’ we picked out a CD of ‘Celtic women’ which we used as a soundtrack to our travels. It was one of the traditional songs on that album, with words by Jim McLean describing the Clearances, that gave us the name for our show.
‘Dreams o’ peace and o’ freedomJim McLean
So smile in your sleep, bonnie babe’
For Maxwell Fyfe had a copy of an agreement (a Tack) dated 1798 amongst his private papers. Drawn up by William Dempster, it ensured security for his tenants on the Skibo estate in perpetuity. That Tack was overturned 80 years later, and among those who suffered in the subsequent clearance, we later discovered, was Maxwell Fyfe’s great uncle, who ‘died, heartbroken’ on the day he was due to be taken from his family home and livelihood.
Maxwell Fyfe’s mother, Isobel, was just 17 at the time, and the injustice must have been shocking to her. The story was told as evidence at Gladstone’s Napier Commission in 1883 – which was held further down the Dornoch Firth at Bonar Bridge, which we also visited. Bonar Bridge has now all but subsumed Creich – within which former parish is the area where Isobel’s family were tenants in the mill from which they were later evicted, but the picturesque ‘ruined chapel, (and) graveyard’ containing the bones of his forebears remains. Travelling around in the car, listening to music inspired by the sweeping landscape and
mirrored lochs, brought the East Highlands to life. As we continued on our journey of discovery, we managed to connect some dots to understand my great grandfather’s history and the history surrounding his love for the area, while marvelling at the places where he was inspired and capturing them through the lens of my camera. It was magical.
Driving north from Inverness, we found not one but two Kilmuirs – one on the Black Isle, overlooking the Moray Firth, and another in Easter Ross, overlooking the Firth of Cromarty. Maxwell Fyfe gives no indication as to which it might be. Although, as it was firmly pointed out to us at a museum in Tain, there are not two or even three Kilmuirs in the Highlands of Scotland – but many. Translated from the Gaelic, Kilmuir means Church of St Mary, and
there are many of these in the north – and as we now knew, a cathedral in Dornoch.
Returning from our adventures, we have got to know Maxwell Fyfe a little better, having walked the landscape that shaped his beliefs. A member of a cleared family, a freeman of Dornoch, it is easy to understand his connection with this astoundingly beautiful place, and why the law of the land and natural justice had such an impact on his life – fostering his passion to confront evil and protect the innocent. Maybe the importance of the name he chose wasn’t finally in the places that we explored, but in the thoughts and feelings they